Few figures divide opinion more than Elon Musk, never more so than now as he juggles a bid for social media site, Twitter. One of the richest and best-known figures in the world, to some he is a genius and trailblazer on a mission to save humanity, to others he is a charlatan or an oddball whose key talent lies in self-promotion. Musk is undoubtedly a complex figure.
A new biography by South African journalist Michael Vlismas, who attended the same high school as the billionaire, aims to get behind the enigma, tracing his formative years in Pretoria and looking at how it influenced what was to come later.
Musk was born in 1971, the eldest of three children of Errol and Maye Musk, a successful mechanical engineer and a beautiful model and dietician who divorced her husband when Elon was 10. Errol’s controversial private life has been well documented elsewhere – the billionaire once described his father as “pure evil” in a Rolling Stone interview.
While Vlismas is happy to cover the more unsavoury aspects of Errol’s personality, his fieldwork and familiarity with South Africa provides a more nuanced view of Musk senior. Errol is a highly driven and successful businessman. He opposed apartheid and was elected as a city councillor at the age of 25. Friends of Elon remember his father as a regular dad who actively encouraged his son’s aptitude for maths and science and gave him access to a computer at a young age.
But a picture of an emotionally cold father comes through. Deprived of love and affection from Errol who he lived with after his parents’ divorce, Elon withdrew into a world of encyclopaedias and science fiction. A voracious reader, his knowledge grew along with his dreams and ambitions but outwardly he was awkward and a loner.
This led to some horrific bullying at school. One beating left him hospitalised for two weeks. South Africa itself was also a brutal place at the time. Musk avoided conscription by enrolling in university which provided a deferment and, from there, planned a move to the United States which he saw as the forefront of innovation and technical advancement.
He was fortunate enough to have a Canadian family background from his mother’s side and secured a Canadian passport, arriving there at the age of 17, with $2,000, a backpack of clothes and a suitcase of books. After doing some manual work, he enrolled in Queen’s University in Ontario.
One powerful thing he learned there was the Socratic method, which involves a constant dialogue between teacher and student, in which the teacher asks a range of probing questions in order to encourage critical thinking rather than just blind acceptance in acquiring knowledge. He recalls using this approach later to encourage scientists and rocket engineers to work with him on paid feasibility studies rather than merely cold-calling them and telling them he wanted to start a rocket company.
After two years at Queen’s where his favourite class was astronomy, he realised his ambition of getting to the United States by enrolling in the University of Pennsylvania to study physics. He also got an economics degree from the university’s Wharton School.
The emerging world of the internet in the mid-1990s provided Musk with his first venture. It involved purchasing a business directory and linking it with the digital mapping software of a GPS company. With one computer, he coded at night so the computer could run the business by day. The resulting business, Zip2, provided Musk’s first payday, when Compaq acquired it in 1999, netting him $22 million (€20 million).
That was the platform for Musk’s subsequent high-profile ventures in PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX. There is a common theme in a desire to improve on what’s there, push the boundaries, think big and change the world.
The visionary side of Musk is unavoidable. He is likened to Steve Jobs. “Jobs wanted you to buy an iPhone, so he built a company that made technology less geeky and more trendy. Musk wants you to buy a future. If he has to start an electric car company to do so, then he will. And yes, there needs to be a profit and he is not entirely utopian in acknowledging that.”
With Musk there is always a carefully thought-out strategy, one that others don’t always see. Open patents on Tesla, for example, encouraged more developers to grow the company’s technology and put Tesla in the driving seat. “It’s a subtle shift but one that clearly shows how Musk’s mind works. As altruistic as his ambitions are, Musk still works very much at the sharp end of what makes business sense.”
Among the observations are that Musk is a better innovator than he is as a CEO, and that he is prone to fall out with partners. He was sacked by the board of PayPal while on honeymoon and replaced as CEO by Peter Thiel. Later, Martin Eberhard, his cofounder at Tesla, is sidelined by Musk.
Despite his immense wealth, Musk has come close to the edge of failure. His empire almost crashed in the 2008 financial crisis, saved by the award of a major Government contract for SpaceX. One of Musk’s great talents has been in growing investor interest and keeping cash flowing. Tesla only became profitable in recent years, for example.
SpaceX appears to be Musk’s most impressive achievement to date. It has transformed the rocket industry more than any other company and has secured the necessary and highly lucrative contracts it needs to fuel its expansion. It has also captured the public imagination.
As Vlismas notes, Musk has not yet publicly stated if and when he will travel into space, joking that he would like to die on Mars one day, “just not on impact”. More practically, he has also noted that his position at the helm of so many companies at present makes it too much of a risk for him to entertain space travel right now.
The geeky South African boy still dreams big but he seems to have his feet on the ground.
Elon Musk: Risking it All by Michael Vlismas is published by Jonathan Ball publishers.